Empathy, sympathy, compassion, the reaching out to another person to help heal and support. It seems an important part of being human of being part of the human race. And it seems in times of disaster that instinct surfaces effortlessly. I remember covering the events of September 11th even though the horror and drama was taking place 3,000 miles away. Hundreds turned out at the local American Red Cross office here in Orange County, California with one motive, “I want to help.”
The recent crisis in Colorado provoked the same response - the best of man from the worst of times. But anyone who has experienced a crisis knows that the initial flood of support somehow ebbs as time passes. In a world of nanosecond information and an onslaught of daily distractions, what is the timeline of compassion?
I can come up with a few personal anecdotes from my own life. My dear friend recently faced a family medical crisis. When the word spread, everyone far and wide offered prayers, meals, support, kind words. That was four months ago and in those few short months the outpouring of kindness is all but gone even though the medical problems continue.
I serve as a board member for a foundation created from the worst of circumstances - the kidnapping, rape and murder of a five year old child. For the last ten years the foundation started by the mother of the young victim continues to wage a war against child predators, but the army by her side varies in size depending upon the latest news about another victim.
Recently I listened to a University of Irvine Professor present an idea about the idea of compassion being used to help children in Foster Care endure. The twist, these children need to learn to BE compassionate to others in order to be able to thrive. Which leads me to wonder, is caring for others a necessary part of being emotionally healthy?
Altruistic people insist that the joy is in the giving. I know many a wealthy philanthropist here in Orange County who say just that, products of the whole “ask not what your country” generation. With our young interns in the office I see a different kind of concern, not just for issues that directly affect their lives but broader concerns that span the world.
But at what point do we lose the motivation to sustain the effort? Do we now know too much, too often and too intensely to be able to keep our focus for any length of time?
The author Rebecca Solnit presents the case in her book “Paradise Built from Hell” that “Natural and man-made disasters can be utopias that showcase human solidarity and point the way to a freer society, that the typical response to calamity is spontaneous altruism, self-organization and mutual aid, with neighbors and strangers calmly rescuing, feeding and housing each other."
But for how long?